Saturday, July 24, 1999 
 

'Sunset Boulevard' deserving of roaring applause

By Shirle Gottlieb
Staff Writer

An all new touring production of "Sunset Boulevard" opened at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, and an enthusiastic audience eagerly embraced it with waves of love. In fact, rounds of applause roared through the audience after every solo number.

Called "Andrew Lloyd Webber's Masterpiece" by the Wall Street Journal, it walked off with several Tony Awards when it first hit Broadway - including one to Glenn Close for her portrayal of Norma Desmond. Even before it opened, this campy "film noir" musical was the subject of juicy gossip and international notoriety.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Sunset Boulevard" by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black, and Christopher Hampton; directed by Susan H. Schulman

Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa

When: 2 and 8 p.m. today-Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Sunday

How much: $21-$52.50

Information: (714) 740-7878 or (213) 365-3500

Who can forget the screaming headlines and accusations by prominent performers on both sides of the ocean who thought the part of the slightly mad, silent-screen diva had been promised to them? Then Lloyd Webber changed his mind, cast Close, and the rest is history.

Based on Billy Wilder's wonderful classic - starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden - all theater buffs know the melodramatic story of the decadent Norma and her handsome boy-toy. And now it's back, with a truncated script, a new treatment by director Susan Schulman, and starring Petula Clark - the British pop singer who made 1960s musical history with her recordings of "Downtown," "I Know a Place" and "Don't Sleep in the Subway."

When Clark appeared as Desmond in the London production of "Sunset Boulevard," she received one of the longest standing ovations in West End history. Of course she interprets the role differently. Her Desmond is still a pathetic, has-been who lives in shadows and self-delusion, but she has more kick, she's more comical ... and while still way over-the-top, more flesh and blood.

Though much of Lloyd-Webber's score seems derivative and repetitious, Clark won me over with her touching delivery of one of the show's highlight's, "As If We Never Said Goodbye." She's equally effective in "The Perfect Year."

Lewis Cleale is fabulous as Joe Gillis - the debt-ridden, out-of-work writer who once dreamed of hitting the big-time in Hollywood. Not as cynical or hard-boiled as other actors have portrayed "Gillis," Cleale makes it clear that his character enjoys the riches that Desmond bestows upon him. With a strong, dramatic voice that reaches the rafters, he chills the audience with his reprise of "Sunset Boulevard," then charms it in his duet, "Too Much in Love to Care."

Supporting actors are also excellent: Allen Fitzpatrick as Max, Desmond's faithful servant who is loyal to the bitter end (his powerful reprise of "New Ways to Dream" is excellent; Sarah Uriarte Berry as Betty, the young script writer who falls in love with Gillis; Michael Berry as her fiance, Artie; and George Merner as Cecil B. DeMille.

Though there is no mechanical Hollywood mansion with an eye-stopping, winding staircase, Derek McLane's scenery is simply gorgeous. It fulfills all the requirements of the plot (a central set of steps, backstage at Paramount Studios and Schwab's Pharmacy). Peter Laczorowsli's lighting is magnificent; and Anthony Powell's costumes will knock your eyes out.

When all is said and done, "Sunset Boulevard" remains highly controversial. If you are one of Lloyd Webber's fans, you will love this production and will not want to miss.